Amid Palestinian Election Plans, Time to Challenge Hamas?

The Palestinian parliamentary elections currently scheduled for May 22 in Gaza and the West Bank, the first in 15 years, present an opportunity for the international community to start the long process of steering Hamas away from violence. One option harkens back to the longstanding principles that the Quartet for Middle East Peace laid out in 2006 for recognition of any Palestinian government. With no evidence that pursuing the conditions as a package has contributed to stability, let alone progress, a new, graduated and benchmarked approach to those conditions might be more effective today.

There is reason to think Hamas might be open to such possibilities – its leader, Yehiyeh Sinwar. To be sure, no one expects Hamas to turn secular or abandon its ambition of replacing Israel with an Islamist Palestinian state anytime soon. For over a decade, interaction between Israel and Hamas has been characterized by periods of violence, followed by external mediation, resulting in Israel’s easing of the closure and ensuing periods of relative tranquility, until Hamas’ demands for further relaxation of the closure or provocations by Hamas’ competitors trigger another round of violence. And the cycle continues.

Still, both internal diversity within Hamas and some degree of change over time have long been in evidence, suggesting that Hamas leadership might be open to the alternative approach proposed here. Regarding the former, Sinwar’s rise to Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip in early 2017 understandably stirred concern in Israel and beyond. With a record of two decades in Israeli prison and a reputation as a tough guy who enjoys the support of the Hamas combative military wing, Israelis were bracing for an even more violent Gaza.

Within months, those expectations proved exaggerated at best. Though hardly averse to violent, even brutal means for securing his and Hamas’ control over the Strip, Sinwar nonetheless proved to be far more pragmatic in pursuing his wish to improve lives for those he grew up with in refugee camps, pursue Hamas’ long-term agenda, and advance his personal ambitions.

Seeking to pave his way to Palestinian (not just Hamas or Gaza) leadership and international legitimacy, he committed to concrete steps to facilitate a prolonged cessation of hostilities in return for Gaza rehabilitation, all in the context of a gradual restoration of Gaza management by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Those messages carried the political risk of galvanizing the internal opposition of those who might lose positions, power, and income should the PA return, joining hands with those who reject suspending the armed struggle.

When both Israel and the PA proved reluctant to act on his initiatives, those risks materialized, leading Sinwar to seek political rehabilitation in the arms of extremism by seizing control over waves of violent activity along the Israel-Gaza border, including when initiated by others.

Sinwar’s Re-Election to Hamas Leadership

Now, having just won a second four-year term on March 10, Sinwar is back. His long-term cease-fire initiative could be, as well. Even before Sinwar, internal Hamas debates over the need for alternative strategies found expression in periodic floating of offers to Israel of prolonged (mostly suggesting 25 years) cessation of hostilities in return for substantial lifting of closure.

Certainly, 35 years since its founding, Hamas’ control over the Gaza Strip is as firm as ever, despite an international boycott, inter-Arab isolation, and three devastating wars with Israel over the last decade. A strong Hamas showing in the approaching elections is expected in both Gaza and the West Bank. Likewise, should the announced presidential elections indeed follow the May 22 balloting for Parliament,  most polls show Ismail Hanyeh, the Hamas presumed candidate, leading Fatah’s incumbent, Mahmoud Abbas.

So ignoring Hamas is no longer an option, and before its popularity is tested should Abbas not choose to postpone elections yet again, this is the time to challenge the movement to take a first step away from violence.

This proposed challenge relates to the three longstanding conditions established by the Quartet (the U.S., the EU, the U.N., and Russia) that any Palestinian government must meet before receiving international recognition. Commonly referred to as the Quartet Conditions or the Quartet Principles, they call for 1) renouncing violence, 2) recognizing the State of Israel, and 3) abiding by previous agreements and obligations.

With all three conditions lumped together in an all-or-nothing approach, as has been the case thus far, Hamas must recognize Israel, which it refuses to do (and may never agree to), in order for it to be rewarded for abandoning violence as a means of achieving its objectives. This conditionality deprives Israel of what it does need of Hamas – an end of violence – because of the linkage of that condition with one that Israel can certainly do without – Hamas’ recognition.

Consequently, the three conditions should be treated separately, so that each kicks in when it becomes relevant. Thus, renunciation of violence must come first. But this cannot be expected anytime soon, as it requires arduous negotiations of ceasefire consolidation and Israeli easing of closure.

Opportunity for a First Step

However, even before Hamas complies, the forthcoming elections present an opportunity for forcing a first step in that direction: International insistence that recognition of election results and cooperation with those elected (Hamas affiliates included), which is a prime Hamas objective, is conditioned on all individual candidates forswearing violence. This demand can pave the road for the more ambitious undertaking down the road.

Later on, should negotiations on a ceasefire/closure-lifting succeed and Hamas embraces non-violence, Israel and members of the international community should demonstrate to Gazans (and West Bankers) that moderation is rewarded, for as long as Hamas lives up to this commitment. The rewards should involve a major Israeli relaxation of the closure (concurrent with long-overdue measures to help solidify PA standing and governance as well as otherwise improve lives on the West Bank), as well as certain third parties – most likely Europeans who are not bound by anti-Hamas legislation – opening communication channels with Hamas, as it craves so much. Both clusters of measures should be implemented while preserving the option of reversing them to convey conditionality.

Through this approach, the other two Quartet Conditions would take effect as they become relevant. Thus, the condition that requires adherence to prior agreements should be a prerequisite for allowing Hamas its long-sought admission into the internationally recognized Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that conducted all negotiations with Israel and is empowered to do so in the future. And the condition of recognition of Israel is hardly relevant before a peace agreement is to be negotiated.

Benchmarking the international conditions in this fashion can transform them from an impediment to potentially prolonged tranquility into an incentive to steer the movement away from its current violent strategy.

Should Hamas fail that test by either refusing to suspend, or resuming its violent conduct, the challenge for Israel of dealing with its intransigence will be no greater than it already is. Moreover, should Israel cooperate with the suggested approach, chances are that if diplomacy fails, it will enjoy greater regional and international understanding if compelled to use force.

On the other hand, were Hamas to comply, lives on both sides of the Israel-Gaza divide would improve significantly. Furthermore, should cessation of hostilities prove long-lasting, no telling how Hamas might evolve over time.

But step one must be that all candidates comply with the international – and Israeli – demand to forswear violence as a prerequisite for international recognition of the election results and cooperation with those elected — Hamas affiliates included.

IMAGE: Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar (R) visits the construction site of a field hospital to house coronavirus patients in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 23, 2020.  (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Nimrod Novik

Nimrod Novik (@NimrodNovik) is Israel Fellow of Israel Policy Forum, a US organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; member of the Executive Committee of Commanders for Israel’s Security, a network of 300 retired Israeli generals; and former Foreign Policy Senior Advisor to Shimon Peres.